Today I want to think about thinking. In particular, to look at the distinction between thoughts and beliefs. We tend to accept our first impressions as being accurate and true. Often this may be the case and the strategy serves us well, but sometimes it can go wrong. We misunderstand someone’s actions or words, possibly leading to emotional upset and maybe angry words. I explore this further in the little article about optical delusions on my psychology website.
Thoughts can be seen as an umbrella term covering our mental activities – our cognitions. They may take the form of well constructed sentences, they might be a jumble of key words (each with an idiosyncratic meaning, arising from past associations), or a vivid image. They can arise out of nowhere, triggered by other stimuli we may not be aware of – a smell, a word overheard, something seen, a play of light in a puddle. They may evolve from other thoughts, following a moreorless logical path, as when we try to solve problems or formulate a plan of action. How many thoughts do we have in a day? On a good day, my mind is like a firework display, thoughts lighting the neuronal sky in streaks of colour, with a suitably dramatic soundtrack. On other days, my thoughts struggle to penetrate the mist curling over the fields of my mind.
Thoughts are mental events. In themselves, they are not reality. Our realities are constructed through perceptual and information processing. These may or may not be an accurate representation of reality as perceived/appraised by other people. And this is where we start to consider beliefs. Beliefs occur when we start to make judgments about our thoughts, when we start to attach values to them. We are in the realm of meta-cognitions – thoughts about thoughts.
Of the thousands of thoughts I have on a good day, I will only pay serious attention to a small percentage of them. By definition, these will be the thoughts that are most salient to me. And I will attach a belief value to them. When I read a novel or watch a film, I know that I am involved in a story. I have emotional reactions that are closely related to the reactions I would have if it was not a story, but I know these have no meaning or purpose in my everyday life. I might have a passing thought that the moon is made of green cheese, or that I might actually do some DIY, but this is not the same as attaching a belief value to them. On the other hand, that person in the shop clearly gave me a strange look (maybe a 100% belief that it was strange), and it was probably disapproving (maybe 75% belief – the look might have been curiosity, or jealousy…). The key thing to understand is that the degree of belief I attach to a thought will have an impact on my emotional reaction, and subsequently on my behaviour and the thoughts that then flow from this, in a long causal chain).
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